March 20, 2015

This extraordinarily moving speech was delivered by Jennifer Atlee of the Nicaragua/U.S. Friendship Office of the Americas and the Honduras Accompaniment Project on accepting the ROCLA International White Dove Award on behalf of herself and Tom Loudon.


Thirty-one years ago Tom and I arrived in Nicaragua. We were witnesses to a historic process of social transformation in Nicaragua and a U.S. sponsored war aimed at destroying it. We intended to stay for six months. We never imagined that we would be here with you tonight to reflect on 30+ years of work for human rights, peace and justice in Central America.

I want to begin with a quote from Nicaraguan writer, Carlos Powell, 2002 winner of the Juan Rulfo International Writers Award in the Human Rights Category. He writes,

“It is much easier to begin a war than to end it. And even more difficult to repair the invisible consequences, those stains on the soul that can never be erased.”

During the 1980’s we witnessed and experienced, along with many others, the impact of U.S. sponsored counterinsurgency wars in Central America. At that time, U.S. policy in the region was informed by its experience in Viet Nam where the will of a poor, determined people withstood the vastly superior military power of the United States. The lessons from Viet Nam were forged into a new military doctrine called “Low Intensity Warfare” (LIW) which guided U.S. engagement in the Central America.

Low intensity refers to low exposure for U.S. troops via the use of proxy forces and other militaries on the ground. The U.S. role is focused on training, equipping, advising, intelligence and funding. This avoids the high political cost of U.S. casualties.

However, LIW entails high intensity suffering on the part of the civilian population; it becomes the enemy, the target, rather than another military force. A central tenet of this doctrine is the deliberate use of terror to shock people into compliance with U.S. policy objectives. The human rights implications for this new form of warfare were catastrophic and have still not been addressed. Dr. Derek Summerfield of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Torture Victims explains the strategy in this way,

Population is the target – through systemic violence and terror, the aim is to penetrate into homes, families and the entire social fabric of grassroots social relations. It is a science of warfare whose goal is controlling the qualitative aspects of human life to produce demoralization and paralysis. Terror is sown not just randomly but also through targeted assaults on health workers, teachers, cooperative leaders, anyone whose work symbolizes shared values and aspirations. Torture, mutilation and execution in front of family members are routine.

A disturbing legacy of this period was the deliberate creation and training of special forces and death squads that specialized in terror in each country; Mano Blanco, ORDEN, Kaibiles, Battalion 3-16, Contras. The School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia played a central role in training these forces in counterinsurgency and psychological operations, which resulted in extreme human rights abuses. This policy reached is most egregious and criminal expression in Guatemala where acts of genocide were committed against the indigenous population.

By 1990, U.S. sponsored counter-insurgency wars had resulted in 100’s of thousands of dead, mutilated, tortured, forcibly disappeared human beings throughout Central America. It left a population that had been deliberately terrorized and suffered from trauma; individual, collective, historical and intergenerational trauma. The beleaguered region was locked in a military impasse despite massive inputs of U.S. funding to bolster oppressive forces. Negotiated settlements became the only way out of the deadly conflict.

Peace processes began in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala involving negotiated accords, disarmament and re-insertion of combatants. In El Salvador and Guatemala, the people insisted on Truth Commissions. The telling of who did what to whom was essential to peace – to end impunity; not for retribution or revenge, but so that Nunca Jamas – Never Again. Truth was necessary for healing.

Unlike the other countries in the region, Honduras was the U.S. stronghold in the region; the staging grounds for the counterinsurgency wars. Honduras was the home of the U.S. military base and intelligence hub in the region; home of the contra bases and refugee camps. There was no post war peace or disarmament process in Honduras; on the contrary weapons flowed into the country. There was no truth, no accountability no record. And social pressure was building.

In 2005, Manuel Zelaya was elected President of Honduras, a representative of the traditional elite, nothing unusual was expected. Yet members of his cabinet advised dialogue with the social movements pushing for social justice rather than repression. The Zelaya government began to make small but significant changes in response to legitimate demands on the part the Honduran people. Minimum wage was increased. Agricultural credit was made more accessible for small farmers. Advances were made in emblematic human rights cases from the dirty war of the 1980’s. The Honduran Congress voted to enter into ALBA, a regional block for economic cooperation.

In addition to these measures, social movements in Honduras were calling for a Constituent Assembly; a process to address aspects of the Constitution that impeded social justice. They felt that structural change at the Constitutional level was necessary for social change. The economic and political elites considered this a major threat. President Zelaya was caught between two conflicting demands; the demand for a Constituent Assembly on the part of social movements and the total prohibition of such a process on the part of power elites. Zelaya decided on a compromise. He called for a non-binding opinion poll on the question of a Constituent Assembly to gauge the level of public demand for this process.

On June 28th, 2009, the eve of the non- binding opinion poll on the question of a Constituent Assembly in Honduras, the Honduran military raided the home of President Zelaya, took him to the Palmerola military base in his pajamas where he was put on a plane and flown to Costa Rica. The Honduran military seized the country. Communication systems were blacked out. Airports and borders closed. Shock waves thundered through Latin America as the region witnessed the first successful military coup of the 21st century. After so much suffering and struggle to emerge from the nightmare of military dictatorships, the coup marked a dangerous precedent, a return to the deadly past of rule by brute force. Governments throughout Latin America rallied to reverse the coup and restore democratic order. Honduras was expelled from the OAS.

At the time of the coup, Jenny was participating in a regional conference grappling with the impact of war/trauma from the decade of the 1980’s. Tom was receiving calls from social movement leaders in Honduras who were asking for international presence in the aftermath of the coup. We took the request to the conference, which suddenly shifted from addressing political violence/trauma in the past to grappling with the shock of a coup d’état in the present.

Tom, along with Jesuit priest, Father Joe Mulligan were among the first to respond the request for international presence along with Father Roy Bourgeois and Lisa Sullivan of SOA Watch.   In Honduras, they witnessed was spontaneous, massive, sustained, peaceful outpouring of opposition to the coup. Throughout the county people poured into the streets, demanding restoration of democratic order and the return of the elected President. For a region emerging from decades of armed conflict and a country with a too many weapons, this massive, peaceful protest was historic. It should have made international headlines.

As the countries of Latin America worked to assure the return of President Zelaya to Honduras, the military of Honduras worked to prevent it. Attempts to fly Zelaya into the country were thwarted when the military occupied the airport and fired on unarmed protestors waiting on the tarmac for his plane to land. For weeks, the military blocked Zelaya’s attempts to cross into Honduras by land via the Nicaraguan border. When Zelaya was smuggled into the country and emerged in the Brazilian Embassy, the Honduran military surrounded it and subjected Zelaya and those with him to months of harassment and pressure, wearing them down psychologically and forcing a negotiated agreement, which removed Zelaya from the Embassy with safe passage to the Dominican Republic.

Protests continued and repression increased.  Throughout Honduras, on walls, flags, T-shirts, hats….appeared these words: “Nos tienen miedo porque no les tenemos miedo. – They are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them.” This was the response of the Honduran people to the coup and increased repression. They dropped their fear in order to asserting basic civil and human rights.

The response was a clear and well-documented increase in the level of repression, deliberate use of terror and shock, counterinsurgency and dirty war at a new level. We witness continuation of U.S. counterinsurgency framework from Viet Nam to Central America during the 70-80’s, to the drug wars in Mexico and Colombia and informed by Iraq.   All of this is brought to bear in Honduras.

Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has been hyper-militarized. The United States has stepped up security assistance to strengthen an ever increasing list of state security forces: police, military, Tigres, Cobras, special border units and task forces, Military Police etc. Despite huge inputs of U.S. funding to bolster state security forces, Honduras experiences a mounting and unabated security and human rights crisis.

National and international human rights organizations, including PROAH (The Honduras Accompaniment Project) have consistently documented patterns of political violence and human rights violations targeting human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, peasants, social movement leaders, indigenous and afro descendant organizations and communities, communities protecting natural resources.

Since 2012 Honduras has consistently ranked as the most deadly country in the world outside of active war zones. San Pedro Sula is the most deadly city in the world. The World Health Organization has declared that Honduras has a homicide epidemic. Since 2012, the homicide rate in Honduras has run, on average, at about 90 homicides per 100,000 thousand people – that is about 1 murder per hour. To put this in perspective, the homicide rate in El Salvador -the next highest rate in the region is 60 per 100 thousand. In Nicaragua, it is 12. The United States – 4.7. Canada – 1.6.

The United States and Honduran governments state that this level of killing is due to “common crime” requiring more funding for state security forces despite undisputed acknowledgement of systemic corruption, abuse, criminality, linkages to gangs, drug trafficking and organized crime on the part of Honduran state security forces.

Two Truth Commissions in Honduras established in the aftermath of the coup determined that the coup d’état carried out by the military was illegal, that police and military are responsible for the majority of reported human rights abuses, that they engage in targeted political violence, excessive use of force and expressed concern regarding the resurgence of death squads within state security forces and the practice of forced disappearance, torture and summary execution.

In 2014 Casa Alianza, an organization that advocates for the right of children, raised concerns about social cleansing programs and documented the murders of an average of 90 children per month in what they consider to be extra-judicial killings.

In the summer of 2014, there was a mass exodus of children fleeing the country in search of safety. Sixty to one hundred thousand children fled violence in Central America, an 80% increase. The largest numbers were from Honduras. The United Nations said the children should be given refugee status. The United States declared them a national security threat, began deportations and fortified borders, trapping children in a cage of violence which U.S. policy has played a heavy hand in constructing.

From day one of the coup d’état, the United States has backed Honduras with steady increases in military assistance, installation of new bases and programs. The State Department says that Honduras is our “strongest partner in the region.” Militarization is justified as necessary for fighting a war on drugs and crime.   Yet, drug flows are not reduced, violence levels continue to climb, the human right crisis mounts and the United States is partnered with state security forces that are permeated by organized crime and corruption.

Rather than changing course, in 2015 the White House announced new “Prosperity Plan” for the region, based on Plan Colombia, a human rights nightmare. The White House is asking Congress for $1 billion as the first installment of a five-year plan, doubling current military assistance.

After thirty years in the region, we are witnessing a new cycle of violence, terror and trauma. We are witnessing a new war. The United States has not learned the lessons of the past. Many of you here tonight have also worked for human rights and social justice in the Americas for thirty + years. You carry the historic memory of this region and its people. Your voice is needed by U.S. policy makers today. Another cycle of violence is already impacting generations to come. You are witnesses and you can speak from your truth so that one day, we can end these wars; so that we can reach the time of Nunca Jamas – Never Again; so that we can reach a time when the repair and healing from the consequences of war can begin.

“It is much easier to begin a war than to end it. And even more difficult to repair the invisible consequences, those stains on the soul that can never be erased.”

One comment

  • Ruth Yarrow says:

    Thank you, Tom and Jenny, for your work and for telling the truth about the horrors of our American export of war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.